- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (January 18, 1993)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0631187073
- ISBN-13: 978-0631187073
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,341,599 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A History of Gnosticism
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"The best account of Gnosticism to have been written. An extraordinary and enlightening accomplishment." Times Literary Supplement
"Comprehensive, judicious and informed. Filoramo, with his light wit and his lucid style, is a historian of integrity and a thinker: these are the indispensable criteria for a study of Gnosticism, and they are all too seldom met." M. J. Edwards, New College, Oxford
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Italian
Top customer reviews
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While the book describes the main and central ideas of Gnosticism, it gives a large amount of detail on each one. I honestly found some it hard to get my head around, and that is something I need to mention. I honestly feel that Jonas' and Rudolph's introductions, ("The Gnostic Religion" and "Gnosis" respectively), are easier for someone just looking for something to start with.
However, the main positive side of this book, in my opinion, is that Filoramo devotes a lot of time connecting Gnosticism to the wider religious and social environment that it found itself in. He also devotes a significant amount of time dealing with those traditions that feed into Gnosticism. Should you be seeking to understand Gnosticism as a part of a wider context, this book does that admirably well. Filoramo seems to present Gnosticism, not as a surprising aberration, but as an understandable result of earlier religious and cultural ideas. In this, Filoramo has written a fine book that does not waste time in unnecessary words and rubbish.
He also discusses briefly the history of scholarship in Gnosticism, which is fairly useful for putting his own book in a wider context.
Another positive is the sheer amount of endnotes that Filoramo provides. For anyone who wishes to follow up on particular areas of his book, he has provided a large number of references for you to check. Also, he has provided a large bibliography for further reading, should you be interested. Filoramo also quotes extensive sections of the texts from the Nag Hammadi Library as well, which is awesome.
One problem is that is some of the writing itself. The translator has used some pretty specialised words, which I did not know, and could not find in my dictionary. While this has happened only a few times, and does not effect the overall meaning so much, it did mean that I could not understand a few sentences. Also, some of the sentences are pretty long, using a lot of clauses in each one. This makes it hard, sometimes, to keep track of what the point is.
A second issue that I have is that Filoramo makes some comments that are not sustainable from evidence about the status of Marcion as a Gnostic. Marcion has prompted debate as to whether he fits into the Gnostic tradition. Kurt Rudolph says that Marcion cannot be understood without Gnosticism and he rests firmly inside Gnosticism. While quoting Clement of Alexandria in support of his idea that Marcion's ascetism was not based on ethics, (whereas he claims Gnostic ascetism was), he attempts to show why Marcion cannot be a Gnostic. However, he ignores much evidence to the contrary, including sources from the same century as Marcion who clearly considered Marcion a Gnostic.
That being said, the book is overall pretty good. I would still recommend Hans Jonas' The Gnostic Religion or Kurt Rudolph's Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism for an introduction to Gnostic belief over this book. However, this book is an excellent opportunity to view Gnosticism in its wider context, as part of a fermenting history of ideas and influences. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It was hard going, but worth it to the end.
Much of what we know today about gnosticism stems from the Nag Hammadi library--a collection of manuscripts discovered in 1945 at Gibel el-Tarif. Polemic writings denouncing the cult also provide illumination. Filoramo illustrates the attempts by church apologists to trace gnosticism to Simon Magnus (see Acts 8:9-24) through a succession of schools, most importantly the Valentinians. The background of gnosticism is one of a cult born into a religious world in ferment where oriental theology had been flowing for centuries to the rather anemic religious culture of the northern Mediterranean.
The debate between _mythos_ (myth) and _logos_ (reason), settled supposedly in fifth century BC Athens (in favor of the latter), raged in the first Christian century. Mythos, originally intended to defend traditionalist religious heritage from attack by rationalists, transforms to a new identity over time. In the case of gnosticism, its development led to a philosophy dismissing the physical world as a manifestation of an ignorant and arrogant Demiurge. (The Christian view maintains that while mankind had allowed sin to despoil God's beauty, nonetheless the creation of the heavens and the earth are a manifestation of God's wisdom and power.)
Their gloomy assessment of the world was highlighted in the Valentinian school which regarded creation as the abortive outcome of the sin of Sophia--"Woman born of woman" followed by unconventional interpretations in the creation of Adam and Eve. To the gnostics, Christ--the Son of God--appeared to be capable of liberating humanity and revealing gnosis to his disciples. Since the gnostics rejected physical manifestations, to them the Savior had both suffered and not suffered. In gnostic tradition, the physical human Christ died on the cross, but the higher Son escaped this gruesome end, laughing at his tormentors. In gnostic theology, Jesus--son of Joseph--was only a man given a superior power that allowed him to reveal secrets of gnosis. Hence for the gnostics, to be a possessor of gnosis was to be superior to Jesus.
There were various teachers to this view, but probably none more prominent than Valentinus, who was born in Egypt, educated in Alexandria, arrived in Rome during the papacy of Hyginus [AD 136-140], and though once a candidate for the papacy was eventually rejected as a heretic. His teachings, based on hostile attacks by Origen, were still thriving in the third century and an edict in 428 reaffirmed condemnation of this sect.
The unwillingness to accept materialistic concepts by gnostic teaching led to cults that rejected asceticism and exalted hedonism. Epiphanius, before he became bishop of Salamis, visited a gnostic community in Egypt around 335 and fervently denounced the depravity he witnessed. Texts from Nag Hammadi, however, provide no theological rationalization for these practices, so there is speculation as to whether some gnostic sects were ascetic and not libertine. In any event, the absence of any formal organization and rejection of institutional roots ultimately doomed the sect to oblivion. By reconstructing the surviving texts on gnosticism, Filoramo has provided a useful historical and philosophical treatment on this forgotten heresy of our religious heritage.